Unfortunately, “The Razor’s Edge” (1946) Is Deadly Dull

Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power
The Razor's Edge (1946)

The Razor’s Edge might have been a different film.

Legendary producer Darryl Zanuck served in both World Wars.  He enlisted as a teenager in the U.S. Army and saw European action in World War I.  By the time the second World War rolled around, Zanuck was an Oscar winning producer who could’ve gotten out of his service or at least stayed stateside, but he insisted on documenting the fighting in active war zones and making patriotic films.

When he returned, he bought the rights to W. Somerset Maugham’s penultimate novel and intended to make a prestige film about man’s search for meaning.

Zanuck originally hired George Cukor to direct, but he and Cukor disagreed on the direction of the main character.  Progress stalled, which was fine with Zanuck—he was waiting for Tyrone Power, who’d enlisted in the Marines, to return home from the war to play the leading role.

When Power came home, Cukor and Zanuck had parted ways and Cukor was engaged in another project.

Cukor—who wanted Maugham to write the screenplay—would’ve made a different film.

We’ll never know if it would’ve been a better one.

Tyrone Power plays Larry Darrell, a man with existential questions after a fellow soldier sacrifices his life to save his in World War I.  Larry wants to marry his sweetheart Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney), but though she loves him dearly, she wants reassurances that he will commit to adult responsibilities like an office job and having children.

He prefers to loaf—his term—around.  Eager not to lose him, Isabel agrees to delay their wedding while he travels alone to Paris to find himself.  When they reunite after a year, they’re as in love as ever but at an impasse—he wants her to live as a questing pauper with him, and she wants a husband who wears a tie to work and earns a salary high enough to buy her fine dresses and a nanny for their eventual children.

He’s content to go on as they are, but Isabel gives him an ultimatum—settle down or lose her forever.

Larry travels to India to learn from a guru, and Isabel marries a rich man.

As the film progresses—scene after never-ending scene—we watch the years unfold as Larry marches toward enlightenment while studying with mystics and doing manual labor to make enough money to survive.

Meanwhile, Isabel and those preoccupied with worldly concerns are dashed against the rocks of fate.  Isabel and her husband lose their fortune in the stock market crash of ’29, and cast their friend Sophie (Anne Baxter) out of their inner circle when she becomes an alcoholic after her husband and baby are killed in a car wreck.

Tyrone Power and Anne Baxter in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Tyrone Power, Anne Baxter

Look—intellectually, I get it.

Larry is essentially walking the path to sainthood—he heals the sick, cares for those less fortunate, and might as well have taken vows of poverty and chastity.

The problem is that sainthood is deadly dull.

The only time the film is remotely interesting is when a jealous Isabel bears her fangs after Larry announces he is marrying Sophie.  Even then, she has no real reason for jealousy—Larry is merely marrying Sophie to save her from her alcoholism.  As anyone who’s ever known an actual alcoholic can predict, his efforts are unsuccessful.

Gene Tierney as Isabell in The Razor's Edge (1946)
Gene Tierney

It’s true that Anne Baxter had a lovely Oscar-winning performance for supporting actress, and that the film garnered 3 other nominations including best picture.

It’s true that 1946 was filled with important films that grappled the trauma of coming home from war—The Best Years of Our Lives won the Oscar for best picture that year.

It’s true we should care about the plight of such people.

But for me, The Razor’s Edge doesn’t pierce the skin.

The Razor's Edge (1946) Verdict:  Had Its Day, Its Day Is Done

Sources

  1. TCM Website: https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/87754/the-razors-edge#notes
  2. Darryl Zanuck Bio: http://plainshumanities.unl.edu/encyclopedia/doc/egp.fil.067

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

This Above All (1942): Forties on Forties

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

For a certain kind of movie buff, there is nothing more romantic and glamourous than what I like to call a “Forties on Forties” film.  These are films made in the 1940’s and set in the 1940’s.  The men dressed in suits and jackets they don’t take off even at the dinner table.  Women wore dresses, gloves, coats, and pearls.  Men and women both wore gorgeous hats they take off and put on a dozen times.

Breakfast served on trays with dozens of plates.  Coffee poured for every meal from a big silver pot into delicate cups.

Train travel in private compartments.  Smoking everywhere, with men lighting cigarettes already in their woman’s mouth.

Films about adults with adult problems.  Love, lust, life, death.

And always, whether in the foreground or background, looms World War II.  (Even in Mildred Pierce, a film that seemingly avoids the war completely, Monte appreciates Mildred’s bare legs by saying he is “happy nylons are out for the duration,” a reference to nylon rationing.)

Films made during the war, when the outcome was uncertain, and after the war, with the thrill of victory temporarily papering over the deep cynicism that would eventually seep onto the screen as film noir.

I am that kind of movie buff, and This Above All is that kind of film.

Joan Fontaine immediately followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion by starring in this surprisingly tender war romance with Tyrone Power in which she plays a woman who falls in love with a British deserter. (Power would make only two more films after This Above All before interrupting his career by enlisting to himself fight in the very war portrayed in the film.)

There was a multi-studio bidding war for the rights to the bestselling novel of the same name by Eric Knight, and eventually Darryl Zanuck secured the highly anticipated film for Twentieth Century Fox.

British aristocrat Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine) announces to her shocked family that she has joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and as a private instead of an officer.  During a blackout, she meets Clive Briggs (Power), and they have an instant connection despite not being able to see one another in the dark. 

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

When they meet up the next day, their attraction grows despite their differences.  Prue is old money, patriotic, and friendly.  Clive is from the lower classes, brooding, and seemingly not telling Prue something.  She does not question him as much as she perhaps should about why he is not wearing a uniform.

Despite barely knowing one another, sparks fly and Prue agrees to accompany him on a holiday during her upcoming leave instead of visiting her family as planned. 

Zanuck had bitter fights with the production code office over the film’s original script.  He’d preemptively removed the novel’s illegitimate pregnancy in a bid for approval, but the code office howled over Prue “going away for a week, for immoral purposes.”  Zanuck and director Anatole Litvak were forced to insert scenes that clearly showed Prue and Clive sleeping in separate bedrooms, and Prue several times mentioning that while what they were doing was innocent, to an outsider it could be misconstrued.

Critics and audiences were disappointed by the watered-down romance, but Zanuck and Litvak’s hands were tied.

Clive is a haunted man.  Prue hears him screaming in his sleep (initially from the other room, of course) and he eventually breaks down and admits that he has overstayed his leave and will soon be classified as a deserter.  He despairs of his country; he does not want to fight to save a British class system that has oppressed him and kept families like Prue’s living off their generational wealth and the backs of the working class.  Already in love, Prue greets his tortured confession with tenderness instead of scorn. 

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

In fact, everyone in the film is sympathetic to Clive’s plight.  His friend and fellow soldier Monty insists that Clive return and not ruin his life.  His commanding officer gives him a second chance when he finally returns.

There are no recriminations, no judgements, no scorn of Clive as a weakling or a coward.  This was more surprising than any illicit affair could have been.

Patriotic Prue stands by him, and although Clive returns to his station, he does not have a dramatic change of heart.  He loves Prue and marries her, and he will help win this war so that he can eventually fight for the things he truly believes in.

“This above all,” Prue reads to him from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the final scene, where he’s been wounded and his survival is uncertain, “to thine own self be true.”

An adult problem with an adult ending.

And a hidden gem from the “Forties on Forties.”

This Above All (1942) Verdict:  Give It A Shot

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine
This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine